HC Deb 20 February 1941 vol 369 cc319-29

Order for Second Reading read.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. T. Johnston)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

I am not the parent of this Measure, although I am proud of it. The parent is my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health. I came to the House in 1922 with a vision before me of the great and shameful waste caused by flooding in the neighbourhood of my home. In my childhood I saw flood banks washed away, cattle drowned, and food destroyed. I saw this happen six times a year, and I saw repairs made at the public expense six times a year. Thousands of acres of first-class agricultural land raised nothing and were used only by seagulls and mosquitoes. No one proprietor of land could be blamed for this, and no one proprietor had the power to remedy it. There were 70 proprietors over a stretch of 12 miles. If one proprietor was able and willing to raise floodgates, his efforts could be rendered useless by some other proprietor further up the water. So, with a fatalism that almost brought agriculturists to despair, we had to acquiesce in this wastage of our national wealth. Then came 1930 and we got a land drainage Measure through this House covering a period of five years which, later on, was extended by two years. That Act, in so far as its cumbrous machinery has allowed it to work, has succeeded well. Work has been completed on two schemes and in the case of a third, namely, the River Kelvin scheme, work is still in progress. Under that Act it took from six to nine months after a scheme had been decided upon to get operations started. First, we had to settle claims for compensation. We had to settle also claims in respect of betterment. We had to adjust disputes and if we could not adjust them, we had to go to arbitration. Finally, the scheme so adjusted or arbitrated, had to be laid for a month on the Table of this House and on the Table in another place.

Under the Measure which we ask the House to approve to-day, this long elaborate and delaying process has been eliminated. In the Bill we provide, first for consultation with the Agricultural Executive Committees. Then we propose to prepare the schemes. Many schemes are already prepared and ready for immediate operation when this Measure has been placed on the Statute Book. After a scheme has been prepared we propose to notify all owners and occupiers affected and give them a reasonable chance to make objections. Then we go ahead with the work. We allow them a further month to make claims for compensation for damage, and after two years —long after the work has been completed —if there should be any further claims for compensation, upon grounds that could not reasonably be foreseen in the initial stages, those claims will still have to be considered. We further provide that the Land Court, which is generally accepted in agricultural circles in Scotland as a fair, reasonable and expeditious tribunal, is to determine those cases. Where we cannot achieve a settlement by negotiation and agreement, disputes will be referred to the Land Court. We provide that all betterment achieved at the public expense shall be a charge on the proprietor. That charge may be made in a lump sum, or by an annual rate levied on the proprietor or proprietors, through the local authorities. Expenses over and above betterment are to be met by the State.

The reason for urgency here is obvious. Food production must be increased. We must have more expeditious procedure and the schemes which we have in mind to operate immediately are schemes by which we calculate that the land affected will be in full production for the harvest of 1942. Our schemes will be limited only by the amount of labour that is available. In this connection I may say that I believe a considerable number of men who have hitherto been described as surplus to requirements in the coal industry, because of their age, would make admirable workmen on these schemes. They are accustomed to these and similar operations, and they are accustomed to working amidst damp. We have in mind immediate recourse to the Ministry of Labour to call to the aid of the Department of Agriculture for Scotland as many of these men as can be secured.

We propose to start at once six or seven schemes representing the renovation of some 12,000 acres in Scotland. The gross cost is estimated to be in the neighbourhood of £100,000, and after betterment has been recovered the net cost to the State we estimate will be £50,000. As a result of this work 12,000 acres of land now useless are expected to produce about 51,000 tons of food—no mean achievement in these days. The schemes which we propose include the River Nith scheme, affecting a district where during the floods of 1931 eight acres of splendid agricultural land were completely washed away; where villages had been flooded and where water occasionally covers the land to a depth of four or five feet. There we propose to begin operations at once. Other schemes which we propose to undertake after consultation with the county agricultural committees—and some of these consultations have already been held—are as follow: The Lochar Water, in Dumfriesshire; the Mouse Water, in Lanarkshire; The Almond, in Mid and West Lothian; the upper section of the River Annan; the Goodie Water; the Lyne Water, in Peeblesshire; the River Eden, in Fife; two tributories of the Tay, the Isla and the Dean; and sundry small schemes.

Those are the aims and objects which the Measure is designed to achieve. It has been received favourably by persons who are qualified to speak for agriculture in Scotland. It meets an urgent necessity for food production and is, I submit, an economic Measure which will yield to the State beneficial results in many directions. Therefore, I commend it to the House.

Mr. Barr (Coatbridge)

I have been asked on behalf of some of my hon. Friends and colleagues on these benches to give a cordial welcome to this Bill, and I believe that in doing so I can speak, in the main, for hon. Members in all parts of the House. We recognise handsomely the part which was played in the preparation of this Measure by the former Secretary of State for Scotland, now Minister of Health. We must congratulate the new Secretary of State for Scotland both on his accession to office and on the very congenial task which was assigned to him to-day in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. When my hon. Friend spoke of his grandfatherly interest, it made me think that I was a grandfather as well, because I remember in early days reading many of his articles in the Press on this very subject. On this subject he has taken a life interest, both in public life and in administration throughout his career. I congratulate him on his accession to office, and on bringing forward the Second Reading of this Measure, which is so congenial to us all. He spoke of the effects of flooding in his own area, and anyone who lives in the West of Scotland and has seen the great damage resulting from the flooding of the Kelvin cannot but agree with the urgency of this proposal. Indeed, I have seen the results in many parts of the country to which he has referred. He made reference to the River Nith and the River Annan; in both these cases, I have seen serious damage, because it was my lot to live on the banks of the River Annan for six years in connection with my first ministry in Scotland.

So far as this Measure has been outlined, and is now in our hands, it commends itself to us; and the principle of betterment is again recognised. In a way, the Bill is a modest Measure, covering something like £100,000 and an acreage of 12,000. It is addressed to those parts of the country indicated, through the machinery provided by the agricultural executive committee; where any cases of difference may arise, the subject will be dealt with by the Land Court, which the Minister rightly said commands the general support of agriculturists and the people of Scotland. It provides that the most needy areas, and what is more important the most likely areas to yield production quickly, are to be taken up in the first instance.

I shall only mention one other matter, because I do not wish to go into details. What appeals to us is the note of urgency which the Minister has sounded, and which is embodied in the Bill. The cumbrous procedure of the Act of 1930, where operations were delayed not only by the procedure, but also because of the financial stringency of the time, which in some regards led to a hold-up of both the Land Drainage Act for England and the Land Drainage Act for Scotland, is swept away. Schemes for compensation and the like, instead of being allowed to hold up the Bill, are so arranged that at a certain stage, with due safeguards, the Secretary of State can step in and proceed with the work, although some of these claims are still outstanding, and will be settled later in the way provided. With these few words, I end as I began by giving a very cordial welcome to this Bill, and by congratulating the Secretary of State for Scotland, whom we are pleased to see in the office he now occupies. I have no doubt that he will bring forward other projects for the benefit of agriculture and food supplies in Scotland, and we wish him all success.

Mr. Snadden (Perth and Kinross, Western)

It would seem almost ungracious to the Secretary of State for Scotland if this small Bill were allowed to pass without a word of congratulation from this side of the House, and if the Government were not congratulated on having taken a step, however small, towards the restoration of what one might call the lost lands of Scotland. In the foreground of the agricultural picture, as I see it to-day, there are many thousands of acres of existing arable and grassland which are incapable of achieving maximum production because of the fact that they are insufficiently drained. In the background we have the colossal problem of restoring thousands of acres of waste land. These acres are partly immobilised, and in many cases wholly immobilised, to the extent that they are a pure waste and contributing nothing whatever to the national effort. There is a stretch of land in my own constituency, not very far from where I live, which could be and should be rich and fertile land, growing heavy crops. In that area there are probably between four and five thousand acres of land which could be and should be among the most fertile land of Scotland. If this land had been drained before the war took place, I estimate that to-day we would have something like £60,000 worth of foodstuffs being produced from it. These derelict acres are a disgrace to the State, and, looking back over the wasted years, I, for one, marvel at the apathy of past Governments in their failure to face up to this problem. To-day we are paying the penalty for past neglect.

No one can say that, even under this Bill, where the total estimated expenditure is 100,000 and the estimated acreage involved is only 12,000, a real effort is being made towards the restoration of our lost lands. Take the county of Lanark. There are some 230,000 to 250,000 acres under crops and grass; probably one-quarter of that acreage requires drainage —five times the total amount covered by this Bill. By and large, the term '' waste land "applies more to England than to Scotland, but even so, North of the Border, very large areas of agricultural land are incapable of maximum production because of inefficient drainage, and in spite of all the fertilisers in the world. The land is sour and therefore inefficiently drained.

When I first glanced over this Bill I got rather a thrill. It warmed my heart, because the Secretary of State is given very great powers. He was always a strong man, but he is made exceedingly strong by this Measure. I thought very probably I should find a snag a little lower down, and I found it. I welcome the powers given to the Secretary of State, because I believe that nothing should stand in the way of maximum production of food from the land, whether in peace or in war, and, if we are to get through this war successfully, it seems rather extraordinary that we should still be able to detect the clutching hand of the Treasury. The Secretary of State, in the Memorandum, is made a very strong man, with great powers, but a little lower down he is, to my mind, totally disarmed, nearly bound hand and foot, by the limitations imposed upon him. I do not believe that you can do anything really substantial with such a figure as £100,000 for the whole of Scotland, nor do I believe that £10 per acre, beyond which no scheme can be promoted, is anything like adequate. I cannot see anyone draining efficiently to-day on £10 an acre, and I speak with some experience. I have recently carried out an extensive drainage scheme on my own property, and I should like to give the House the figures. For one acre, drains 10 yards apart, labour, £9 0s. 1d.; 165 four-inch tiles at 225s. per 1,000, £1 18s. 9,d.; 1,225 three-inch tiles at 135s. per 1,000, £8 5s. 4d.; total, £19 4s. 2d. I should like to ask the Secretary of State whether he can do something to expedite the payment of claims. They are very slow in coming, and people who spend money expect to be paid in a reasonable time.

There is one little problem, which I do not think is always understood, that I should like to bring to the right hon. Gentleman's notice. If an owner is going to drain, at the high cost with which he is faced, he very often stops short when he thinks his costs must have a bearing upon rental. That is why many schemes fall fiat to-day. He does not want to spend £20 an acre, although he gets £10 back from the Government, because he feels that he may have to put the rent up. Then there is the great question of labour. There are practically no skilled drainers available at all to-day, and the Bill, to my mind, is quite useless unless the Government organise regional labour. I think the Scottish farmer has been quick to recognise the valuable assistance given him by the Government, and I think Scotland relatively is well drained and, for that matter, very well farmed. But 1 think now is the time for the Secretary of State to make a survey. He has his agricultural committees doing extraordinarily good work and performing a very great national service. If we had a survey of our waterlogged areas, we should be in a very strong position when we come to consider, in the light of postwar agricultural policy, what we are going to do with our wet land. I hope the Secretary of State will use his powers vigorously, and I hope there may still be time to reconsider the limitations imposed upon him.

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Kilmarnock)

I rise partly to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his accession to office. We realise the great energy which the late Secretary of State displayed during his brief term of office and his partial or whole responsibility for the Bill. But I should like to say how much some of us in Scotland appreciate something else that has been done, and that is the appointment, for the first time, I believe, of a second Under-Secretary of State. I think this has been due for a long time. It has been clear for many years that, if the very large Departmental responsibilities are to be properly exercised, there is need for further assistance from the Ministerial angle in Scotland itself. On personal grounds may I say how glad I am to see this very powerful combination of the right hon. Gentleman, with his very great past experience, and the Under-Secretary and the previous Under-Secretary, with their very special knowledge of agriculture, of social services, and of education? Some of us hope that this will mean a fresh impetus to Scottish administration, which is badly needed. We have badly needed someone almost wholly concerned with education for many years. Equally there is so much reorganisation necessary which has been neglected for 20 years—I say it advisedly—in the Highlands and Lowlands that I hope the right hon. Gentleman will at last be able to give his whole time to Scottish affairs, even if he has to go on being Regional Commissioner as well.

I think the hon. Member who spoke last is under some misapprehension. I gathered that his drainage was due to flooded areas, of which I have some in my constituency, and I hoped that some money and assistance might be forthcoming in that area. The Secretary of State said there were some miners who might possibly be employed in this work. For many years I have had in my constituency a number of miners, aged 55 and over, who are about the saddest sight in Scotland. There was talk of pensions, but nothing has ever happened. They belonged to mines which have ceased to work in the last 20 years. The younger members of the community have been translated to the areas where mining is moving a little further South, in Ayrshire, but the rest remain behind in these desolate areas. I believe that those men were among the few thousand for whom the Minister of Labour could not find work. It may be that for the first time some of them can be given work in a job which is not very different from some of their previous employment, especially as most miners have one foot in the mine and one on the land.

Mr. Hannah (Bilston)

I do not think anything could better justify our Coalition than the introduction of this splendid Bill. There is nothing more important than the revivifying of our Scottish countryside, and the production of food is almost equally important. I hope the Bill will do something along those lines. As a child I knew quite well a certain area in Peeblesshire which was admirable wheat land but is now derelict bog. I understand that one of the schemes proposed will benefit that particular area. I hope to see that district brought back to cultivation, growing wheat again and increasing the population of that district which is so badly wanted. I do not think this Bill can be considered as more than a hopeful and satisfactory beginning. I ask for a survey of the whole of Scotland, so that landowners maybe advised what is the best use to which their property can be put, whether for forestry, agriculture, pasture or arable, so that Scotland may be brought back to that splendid, vigorous, country life which has been its great strength. We realise that in no country in the world do the peasants to such an extent go to universities and take a prominent part in the affairs of the nation, particularly, perhaps, in the ministry of the Church of Scotland. This Bill, by reviving the Scottish countryside, is therefore one of the most satisfactory that has been introduced for a long time. I hope that it is but a small beginning and that we shall find every acre of Scotland carefully surveyed, so that it may be put to the best use of which it is capable.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Wedderburn)

This is a Bill which gives power to the Secretary of State to carry out certain public works with money that is directly provided by the Exchequer and with labour that is directly employed by the Department of Agriculture. No objection has been raised to the granting of this power to the Secretary of State, and the only point for discussion is the means and the expedition with which the work can be carried out. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for West Perth (Mr. Snadden) has not quite understood the nature of the public works that are proposed under the Bill. It is entirely confined to arterial drainage. My hon. Friend was clearly thinking of field drainage over a wide area.

Mr. Snadden

The Bill refers to agricultural land capable of improvement, and I thought that if the work could not be done by an owner under the existing Government scheme, the Government would have power to do it for him under this Bill.

Mr. Wedderburn

I would remind my hon. Friend that a 50 per cent. grant is available for field drainage, but the works contemplated under this Bill are the lowering of river beds and the treatment of catchment areas in such a way as to enable land which is now uncultivable by flooding or by the water in the land to be brought under cultivation. That is the sole purpose of the Measure. I am glad to hear the remarks of those hon. Members who have described this as a hopeful and satisfactory beginning and who have asked us to do a great deal more. I would only remind them of the importance of the time factor. In order to carry out schemes of this kind, as the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. Hannah) suggested, surveys are necessary. Surveys have been taken for the purpose of 10 fairly large schemes which it is proposed to complete, we hope, this year, when the Bill is passed. The estimated cost is £100,000, and that is the basis of the figure contained in the explanatory Memorandum. The House will recognise that in order to carry out the work on a wider scale it is necessary to have further surveys and to get good engineering opinion about the prospects.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Perth described the difficulty of obtaining a large supply of labour. That is obviously another limiting factor at the present moment. Other limiting factors are the amount of machinery which can be spared from our general war effort and the necessary preliminary surveys. The prime purpose of the Bill is to increase our food supply next year and the year after. That is why we have given the figures which appear to limit the scope of the Bill. They are, however, based on what has already been planned, and which, we have good reason to think, it will be practicable to carry out in the spring and summer of 1941. That is the sole reason for the limitations that have been criticised by hon. Members. If it be found possible to extend the scope of the principle that underlies the Bill, no one will be better pleased than my right hon. Friend. I would like to thank all hon. Members who have spoken for the very helpful and kind response which they have given to the Bill, which we hope will strengthen our resources in war and, on a long view, increase our prosperity in peace.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for the next Sitting Day.—[Mr. J. P. L. Thomas.]